Monday, May 14, 2012

Shakespeare's Sonnets

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William Shakespeare is widely known for his simultaneous use of ambiguity and precision in his works. His plays on words go beyond common convention and force the reader to search for further meaning. Shakespeare’s flair expressed in his works engage his readers, urging them to solve his puzzle and the story he is trying to tell. His emotions and feelings of love constantly develop and shift illuminating different literary characteristics and qualities immersed inside each sonnet. Sonnet 10 is a prime example of one that compares the speaker’s lover to many other beauties�yet these comparisons are never in the lover’s favor.


This particular sonnet plays an elaborate joke on conventional love poetry written in Shakespeare’s time and is told so well, that the joke remains funny when read today. Most sonnet sequences from Elizabethan England modeled themselves after Petrarch’s sonnets. Petrarch commonly used elements of nature to describe the greatness of his mistress. At the time, Petrarchan metaphors comparing beautiful women with natural things were almost over used. The poet is being realistic and saying that his mistress is nothing like the beauty found in these things, she is rather ordinary, yet she still is attractive. Shakespeare’s sonnets undermine and sabotage the traditions established in the Petrarchan love style of writing. He chose an admittedly imperfect man to idolize with his sonnets, and almost writes with disgust about the dark lady.


Sonnet 10 is written around an alternating rhyme scheme where the last word in line 1 rhymes with the last word in line , the last word in line rhymes with the last word in line 4, and so on. In addition, iambic pentameter is used evenly throughout this particular sonnet. The metaphorical construction of this sonnet is important to its effect. In the first quatrain, the speaker spends one line on each comparison between his mistress and something else (the sun, coral, snow, and wires)--the one positive thing in the whole poem that some part of his mistress is like. His attractiveness for her he admits is due to her status as a highly sexual being. In the second and third quatrains, he expands the descriptions to occupy two lines each, so that roses/cheeks, perfume/breath, music/voice, and goddess/mistress each receive a pair of unrhymed lines. This creates the effect of an expanding and developing argument, and neatly prevents the poem--which does, after all, rely on a single kind of joke for its first twelve lines--from becoming stagnant and dull. This particular form and style of sonnet writing keeps the reader amused while at the same time gives a set cohesiveness to the piece.


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During the Renaissance, it was common for poets to employ Petrarchan conceit to praise their lovers. Applying this type of metaphor, an author makes elaborate comparisons of his beloved to one or more very dissimilar things. Such hyperbole was often used to idolize a mistress while lamenting her cruelty. Shakespeare utterly abandons the poetic convention of Petrarchan conceit in Sonnet 10. In this poem, Shakespeare denies his mistress all of the praises Renaissance poets customarily attributed to their lovers.


The first quatrain is filled exclusively with the Shakespeares seeming insults of his mistress. The first line starts the sonnet out describing the eyes of the woman who we have labeled as the “Dark Lady” with a traditional comparison. Shakespeare’s choice of the word “mistress” to label this woman is particularly interesting with the word “stress” embedded within it. Perhaps the stress originates from lusting and loving something he knows is not conventionally or normally thought of as beautiful added to the fact that she is denying him. The emotion felt in this line is a gloomy on of disappointment and dissatisfaction in an expectance for more superficial attractiveness.


Line follows a pattern set in the first line with the use of something found in nature to describe the woman. It adds to the power of the first line with the comparison of lips like coral, another traditional comparison. Yet he is again stating that coral is redder than her lips, a statement that comes off as an almost poetic insult. Along with the lack of brightness in her eyes, the lack of redness in her lips go together to increase the emotion of a dismal displeasure with this woman’s appearance. As the lines of the first quatrain progress from one to four, the particular body part being described also progresses in sensuality. From the mistress’ eyes to her lips and now her breasts that the poet is speaking of, we continue to get a feel of frustrated disappointment. Skin and breasts were often described as whiter than snow. Breasts were also compared to pearl and ivory. The wittiness of this line is in the use of the word dun, which brings the reader down to earth with a bump. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as Of a dull or dingy brown colour; now esp. dull greyish brown, like the hair of the ass and mouse. Logically, since snow is white, one should accept that her breasts were dun colored, i.e. somewhat brownish. Whether this confirms or not that his mistress was truly dark seems doubtful, for the most likely cause of the claim here to her darkness is that of being deliberately provocative. Skin is never as purely white as snow, or as lilies, therefore to go against the extravagant claims of other poets by a simple declaration of something closer to reality might jolt everyone to a truer appraisal of love and the experience of loving. Although the poet is making the woman’s features seem insignificant, the fact that he is writing his sonnet about her shows that these particular parts hold meaning to the narrator. The Dark Lady seems to be viewed primarily as a sexual object, and the selected parts to be described are most commonly associated with the act of loving.


The last line of the first quatrain continues this pattern of describing a woman’s sexual parts with the fourth line that describes her “head”. At first glance, the “black wires” that grow on her head could be seen as the narrator talking about hair growing on her head. This adds to the feeling that the Dark Lady is of African descent. However, following the sexual theme established in the previous lines, the black wires growing on her head may represent pubic hairs. The emotion stays relatively uniform in the first quatrain but increases vulgarity in a sexual manner. Perhaps the poet is judging the Dark Lady and her multiple flings that seem to be for nothing but pure physical sex. He may be contrasting her beauty to lovely things to label her promiscuity and sexual freeness in a negative light. Although, in preceding sonnets, Shakespeare out rightly admits that he lusts after her, yet is denied and cannot have her. A writer who is obsessed with the process of love such as William Shakespeare may perhaps be condescending of someone who loves primarily for raw sex, and avoids loving.


In the beginning of the second quatrain, line 5 is paired with line 6. The speaker states that they have seen women with charming rose cheeks, a feature lacking in the Dark Lady. The sixth line gives an illustration of a beauty literally portrayed according to the extravagant conceits of the time. Her cheeks have roses growing in them; this is another quite literal description that uses nature and its elements to illustrate her beauty, or lack of. The words used in these lines change slightly to a more delicate and charming feel, yet because the description is again contrasting to these beautiful elements of nature, the emotion is again a dark and bland one of inadequacy


The next two lines form a couplet as well. The poet uses a humorous comparison of pleasant smelling perfume to breath that reeks. It’s curious that even though he is insulting her, the repulsiveness that he finds in her is does not sway him from lusting after her. Often in sonnets and poetry the beloveds breath is described as smelling sweeter than all perfumes. It was part of the courtly tradition of love to declare (and believe) that the goddess whom one adored had virtually no human qualities. All her qualities were divine. The use of the word reeks in Shakespeare’s time tended to be associated with steamy, sweaty and unsavory smells. The original meaning seems to have been to emit smoke’; a meaning which is still retained in the Scottish expression Lang may your reek, Long may your chimney smoke. There seems to be little doubt that Shakespeare could have used a gentler and more flattering word if he wished to imply that his mistress was a paragon of earthly delights. The expression is on a par with the earlier descriptions of dun breasts and hair made of black wire. It also lends to the sexual theme already established. The initiation of sexual acts often leads to heavy breathing and sweating, thus the steamy, sweaty and unsavory smells the poet illustrates are probably products of sex. Line 7 and line 8 shifts the emotion from inadequacy to be more of disgust and repulsion, yet a feeling of desire and yearning remains.


Line and line 10 describes the woman in a gentler yet still negative tone. Line is the first and only time that the poet uses the word love, a term often used in a sonnet. Because he says that he loves to listen to her, he is actually complimenting the Dark Lady in this line alluding to her intelligence. In the following line, he does state that the sound of her voice is not as lovely as what is being said. The mere introduction of the term music enlightens the readers ear to the quality of experience the poet derives from listening to his beloved. Technically the effect is perhaps achieved by the directness of the statement I love to hear her speak’; the whole effect is then consolidated by the pleasing sound of music which follows. The tone of the poem changes in line nine of the second quatrain, where Shakespeare qualifies his next insult, stating that he loves to hear his mistress speak. Shakespeare is certain that his mistresss voice is not as delightful as music, and that she does not glide gracefully as a goddess-she walks on the ground like the rest of us (8; -11).


The change in tone, though followed by more insults, begins to indicate the purpose of the speakers presumably derogatory candor. Shakespeare, tired of clich�d praise, wishes to compliment the value of genuine beauty. This theme of sincerity is furthered by the concluding couplet, And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare (1-14). Although he does not endow his love with unattainable beauty conferred to lovers by his predecessors and contemporaries, he finds her quite exceptional. As Shakespeares mistress is remarkable despite his honesty, his sonnet is remarkable because of it, not only ignoring the pretense of Petrarchan arrogance, but also mocking its false compare (15). His admiration for this woman is blatantly there, yet his realistic and bare description of her beauty is described first by stating what she lacks, but then by stating what she has and why she is beautiful to him.


In this sonnet, he ridicules the most common comparisons of the human realm and nature-the poets metaphors between woman and natures objects of beauty. By accentuating the shortcomings of the banal hyperbole of the Elizabethan poet, in Sonnet 10, Shakespeare suggests both the futility and the foolishness of attempting to compare humans and nature.


In sonnet 10, Shakespeare contemptuously describes his Dark Lady introduced in the previous few sonnets. The poet satirizes the tradition of comparing one’s beloved to all things beautiful under the sun, and to things divine and immortal as well. On the contrary, although the octet makes many negative comparisons, the sestet contrives to make one believe that the sound of her voice is sweeter than any music, and that she far outdistances any goddess in her merely human beauties and her mortal approachability. Many sonnets of the time use such lofty comparisons to praise a beloved idol, a practice of flattering praise in this vein that stretches back to Petrarch and his sonnets.











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